Books: When a stag ran through WC1

The London Rich by Peter Thorold Viking pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
It no longer takes quite the same generosity of spirit to feel a sympathy for the rich. These days, privilege is a dirty word, public schoolboys hide their education and trustafarians persist in the conceit that their casual jobs in PR alone finance their lifestyles. And with the forthcoming sale of a mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens for pounds 36m, the London Rich have once and for all been priced out of their own city. But it was not always thus. It may be in the very nature of an aristocracy to be always in decline, but our lot certainly fell from a great height. They were once able to carve a nation's morality in their own image as easily as they set their dreams into its landscape. The progress of both feats is chronicled in architectural time in Peter Thorold's book.

Many Londoners are unaware of the mansions of the gods to the north of Regent's Park, the communal secret gardens of Notting Hill and Kensington, the tennis courts hidden yards from the traffic in Eaton Square. Privacy and the desire to be seen have reached a happy compromise today. Two or three hundred years ago, however, the rich had never known anything like it. They were used to country estates where they were the masters of all they surveyed. Now, they not only had the concerns of equals to contend with, but they were within clouting distance of the king himself. To others this was the whole point of it. No longer was the court a small circle to which you were summoned. The court was effectively the whole city. The rich would retreat back to their estates come the summer months, but one wonders why they bothered. With London still a collection of villages separated by green fields, many of the great houses were located in an Arcadian hinterland between town and country. Westbourne Terrace in Paddington, for instance, once terminated in open countryside, and as late as the 1820s, a stag was chased through the streets of Bloomsbury by over-enthusiastic huntsmen before being rescued by two young ladies.

It was at some point during these decades that Nimbyism ("Not in my back yard") must have been invented. There is no more solidarity among the rich than there has ever been among the poor, and once men of wealth were secure in their circumstances they strove to protect their interest. If the rich built London, there were certainly times when it was against their better judgement. The reasons they gave for halting the march of progress were varied. The old rich and those who wished to mimic them (that is to say, everyone) still cherished a memory of their country estates in London's green spaces, while in the 1820s King's College was refused a site in Regent's Park to allay the concern of female residents who feared molestation at the hands of students. The genius of developers such as Nash and Cubitt brought solutions, most notably in Nash's conceit of designing Regent's Park so that its entirety would appear to be the private grounds of each of its villas.

Design was never enough, however, and when their idylls were overrun by urban sprawl, the rich would simply move further out to suburbs new. Many of the great houses would fall into ruin or be demolished, while terraces would become slums populated by the less well-heeled who received cast-off buildings as they received cast-off clothes from their masters. As in the literature of these periods, so in their history, and it falls to the working classes to provide comic relief in The London Rich. The poor lived in the backstreets and mews which housed the stables (which are now some of the capital's most desirable properties). The rest lived far away in the East End where, according to one Bethnal Green vicar, "as little was known about as the wilds of Australia or the islands of the South Seas". Visitors from overseas would often complain of their bolshiness. Any well-turned-out foreigner who strayed off the beaten track in 19th-century London was liable to be assaulted by commoners and cursed as a "French dog" by street urchins. As for Thames boatmen, they apparently often refused to go to the south bank of the river.

Between the old rich and the poor came new money, often in greater quantities than that of the old. Those houses for princes in Regent's Park were occupied by men of commerce long after nobility had become a commodity. Venality and other forms of corruption were thought particularly prevalent in London at the turn of the 19th century. As usual, our morality soon followed after our passions, and riches became a moral virtue of themselves. The architectural legacy was variety, and all true Londoners will be grateful for being spared the monotonous beauty of Paris. But maybe not too grateful. The new rich turned London into the "monster" city, as Thorold calls it. In the mid-19th century, he writes, visitors did not find a romantic city, but one expressive of immensity, materialism and extremes of riches and poverty. Nathaniel Hawthorne himself was moved to write, "I have never had the same sense of being surrounded by materialism and hemmed in with the grossness of this earth's existence anywhere else." The English reserve has always been overrated, and London's rich once complemented banquets and dancing with a good shouting match at the cock-fights or the bear-baiting ring - much as City bankers have lately taken to screaming on the Blues on a Saturday afternoon.

The patrician class absorbed wave after wave of the new rich, but by the 1920s the marriage of money and status was taking place on equal terms. The patricians took on the character of their enemy and engaged in commerce without shame for the first time. The process continues to this day where it has reached its logical conclusion in what must be the opposite of social climbing. Today's gentry cannot turn themselves into men of commerce fast enough. But they do not all run companies or work at Lloyd's.

The latest innovation of the London rich is a curious form of rotating class system. They sell each other houses and soft furnishings from boutiques in Knightsbridge. They even serve each other drinks - it is often a requisite of the silver service waiter that he is used to receiving such treatment himself. There are hundreds of future stockbrokers and auctioneers on the books of Fulham's staffing agencies who toil for wages the working classes would revolt over. The wealthy of today take turns to be their own working class, their own middle class and, at weddings staged in the countryside, their own royalty. Far more modest in their ambitions these days, they view their privilege as a safety net rather than a head start. Such people one could never imagine building a great city. Yet they will enjoy this book. The London Rich is not a page-turner - the often flat presentation of detail stalls one's reading. But since its substantial body ends with the beginning of this century, as a piece of history it will be of more interest to the London rich of today than to those who want a glimpse of how the other half live.